If you should be ever offered the opportunity to attend a Kashmiri wedding, or any other celebration which calls for a feast, grab it! The traditional Kashmiri feast, known as a wazwaan, is a treat not to be missed, even though getting hold of one outside of Kashmir may be a trifle difficult.
To begin at the beginning, Kashmir is a land very different from the rest of India. The mangoes and bananas, the coconuts and oranges of areas further south are missing from this state, and the staples here are rice and meat- and lots of meat! The `original’ wazwaan (alas rarely encountered now) was a showcase of the Kashmiri fondness for meat, with close to 36 courses being served, 95% of them consisting of meat. Today’s wazwaans are less extensive, but they’re great, nevertheless.
The first time I was invited to a wazwaan, it was to a neighbor’s home in Srinagar. The gentleman’s sister-in-law had just got engaged, and about 70 guests had been invited to the wazwaan. All through the preceding day, professional cooks (known as waazas) and their assistants had laboured, ritually slaughtering sheep and chickens, pounding meat and spices, and simmering huge cauldrons of the most wonderfully aromatic curries until we couldn’t wait to walk across to Mr. Malik’s house.
At his house, arrangements for the banquet had been made for two huge, carpeted rooms, one for the women and the other for the men (this was a Muslim household), and spread with long white strips of cloth, known as dastarkhans. Everybody was to sit on the floor, and for every four people, a huge plate, called a tarami, had been piled high with rice. You sat down, cross-legged, uttered the ritual Bismillah, and waited for the cooks to come parading through, serving each course onto the taramis. You were expected to mark out your own portion of rice, and eat only from there. We, of course, not being Kashmiris, were kindly provided with individual plates.
The procession of dishes was nothing short of spectacular and it continued throughout the hour or more it took to consume it all. There was tabakmaaz; crisply fried lamb ribs; roganjosh, a spicy red lamb curry; rista, silky meatballs made by pounding lamb and fat together for hours on end and then simmering it in a spicy gravy; and loads more. There also was Marchwangaan korma, a fiery red curry with about as much chilly in it as meat; spinach cooked with tiny meatballs; dhaniwal korma (lamb simmered in a yogurt and fresh coriander gravy); a smooth dish of thinly sliced paneer (cottage cheese) in a tomato gravy, which, along with a kidney bean curry, was the only truly vegetarian dish, and God alone knows what else. Beside each tarami, were bowls of plain yogurt, freshly sliced carrots and onions, and chutney. The three females of our family (I could hardly call all of us women- I was not even a teenager!) were conscientiously consuming rice along with the meats, until one of the ladies seated beside us said, "Oh! You’re not supposed to eat the rice, you know. That’s just for wiping your hands. Eat only the meat. That’s it!"
The wazwaan reaches its climax with the appearance of the pièce de resistance, the gushtaba, a huge fist-sized meatball, for which lamb is pounded with fat and then cooked in yogurt and spices. The gushtaba is traditionally served by the vasta (chief) waaza himself. It’s a tribute to his skills, the ultimate proof of his prowess.
The wazwaan ended with the gushtaba and we had barely enough space to fit that in, let alone the fragrant cups of kehwa, a delicate Kashmiri green tea flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon, and sliced almonds. By the end of it all, we were well beyond satiation, but the experience was one that I remember, as fondly as ever, even today.
By the way, for a taste of what a wazwaan’s like, try the Kashmiri tarami at Delhi’s Chor Bizarre restaurant (Hotel Broadway, Asaf Ali Road, Tel: 23273821). It comes for about US$11 per person, and offers a neat snapshot of a miniature wazwaan. Chor Bizarre also has an outlet in Delhi’s neighbouring city of Noida. The restaurant is located next to the McDonald’s in Sector 16, Noida.